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Many Software Developers Don't Have This One Crazy Skill

You may know JavaScript, Ruby on Rails, and Scrum. There's one element of the total package that many developers don't have in their professional toolkit, however, and are not likely to succeed without.

It's never a bad time to hone your soft skills.I had lunch last week with an old friend and co-author. He’s returned to the United States after a two-year stint abroad, and has just landed a VP-level position at a fintech company. ("Fintech" is a portmanteau of the words "finance" and "technology.") After more than a decade as a manager and team lead in software development, he’s changed careers completely.


These days, instead of hiring and managing software developers to deliver on specific projects and products, he’s now responsible for "talent development." He could be working in HR, given his mission and that responsibility, but he’s got his own organization to grow.


His real mission is to make sure that entry-level software developers can cope with the surroundings into which they’ll be thrust once hired and put to work. Let’s call my friend Bob, so that I can put some words in his mouth, as he explains the challenges he faces in seeking to hire hundreds of software developers in fairly short order (under a year — or under six months, if he can make that happen).


"Of course," says Bob, "I’m interested in the candidate’s technical skills. I want them to know the right languages, something about QA and test methods, and to understand the basic principles and best practices for Agile Development. But there are other things, too, that are equally important, or perhaps even more important.”


He then goes on to walk me through a laundry list of what can only be described as soft skills. Items on his list include "political savvy, communication skills, people skills, and team skills." To answer my inevitable questions about what those things mean to him (or, perhaps more importantly, to his employer) he tells me a story about what he means by political skills.


"You know me, Ed," he says. "I’m a pretty nice guy and pretty collegial in my approach to coworkers and team members." He then goes on to relate that, in working with people newly entered into the workforce, or without much on-the-job experience, problems often arise.


When as a team lead or development manager, Bob says, he explains to such newcomers what he wants them to do, they don’t always understand the nature of such conversations. “Too often,” he says, “they think we’re in a negotiation.


"They hear me asking them to do something, and they respond by trying to restructure my requests in terms more favorable to them. That’s not what’s going on. I’m just being polite about giving them their marching orders.


"While I do expect them to seek clarification and get things nailed down, it’s not about 'You’re asking X, and I’m countering with Y.' It's not about that at all."


It's Not a Negotiation, It’s a Set of Marching Orders


It turns out that, for Bob, political savvy means understanding how the workplace works, and what roles coworkers are expected to fill. It also gets into how subordinates and team leads (or managers) interact, and what each party to such interaction can expect from each other in terms of information, support, and guidance or input.